# 11.1: Begging the Question

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You and Chidi are chatting in your dorm. She’s a rabid UCLA fan and is telling you how well their football team will do this season. But you’re skeptical. In exasperation, she works the following argument into your conversation.

You: I just don’t see UCLA having a winning season in football. They weren’t very good last year, and they lost a some really good players.

Chidi: You’re wrong, and I can show it. UCLA will have a winning season.

You: Why?

Chidi: Because they will.

When we put Chidi’s argument in standard form it looks like this:

Premise: UCLA will have a winning season.

Conclusion: Therefore, UCLA will have a winning season.

Are you convinced? Of course, not—but why not? What’s wrong with the argument? Let’s begin by asking whether the argument has some of the good features we’ve learned about so far.

Relevance: Is the premise relevant to the conclusion? Well, if the premise is true, so is the conclusion, so the premise could scarcely be more relevant.

Validity: Is the argument valid? Well, if the premise is true, then the conclusion must be true (since the premise and the conclusion are the same). So, the argument is valid.

Soundness: Is the argument sound? That depends on whether the premise is true or not. We may not be sure about that, but we can see that there is something wrong with this argument even if the premise is true, by devising a similar argument with a true premise.

Suppose you aren’t sure who the U.S. President was in 1922, and Jordan argues:

The President in 1922 was Warren G. Harding.

Therefore, the President in 1922 was Warren G. Harding.

Here the premise is true, so, the argument is sound. But if you were in doubt before, should this argument convinces you that Harding was president in 1922? This argument is no better than Chidi’s argument above.

The premises of the winning-season argument are relevant to the conclusion, the argument is valid, and it might even be sound. Still, something is very wrong with it in the context of your discussion. What is it (try to answer this question before going on)?

## Using Arguments to Convince

Arguments have various purposes. Sometimes we just use an argument to see what follows from what (if I spend \$50 on weed this week, how much will that leave me for food?). But one of the main functions of an argument is to convince someone of something that they do not already believe (if they already accept our claim, there is no point trying to convince them).

When we try to legitimately convince someone with an argument, we are trying to get them to accept a claim (the conclusion) by giving them reasons (premises) to believe it. But if we are to accomplish this, we must use premises that the other person accepts. After all, if we use premises that they don’t accept, then even if our argument is deductively valid, there is no reason for them to believe that our conclusion is true.

What counts as a legitimate premise depends on the context. If you are arguing with someone who already believes that Democrats always make better public officials than Republicans, then you could use the claim that we should have a Democratic majority in the United States Senate in arguments with that person. You both agree on this premise, it is common ground, so it is quite reasonable to use it in this context. But if you are arguing with someone who doesn’t believe that Democrats always make better officials, you cannot use this premise. If the other person doesn’t think your premise is true, then no matter how elaborate your argument, they won’t have any reason to accept your conclusion.

So, it is fair to assume different things in different contexts. But if someone doubts that your view is true, it will never be appropriate to use your view as a premise to convince them that your conclusion is true. No matter what the context, if you doubt that OU will have a winning football season, Wilbur cannot reasonably use the claim that they will have a winning season as a premise in arguing for his conclusion that they will have a winning season.

Of course, no one would be taken in by Wilbur’s argument, but we will see that it is often possible to give the sort of argument that Wilbur gave, but to disguise it, so that it’s defects are much harder to spot.

## Begging the Question

We commit the fallacy of begging the question when we assume the very thing as a premise that we’re trying to show in our conclusion. We just assume the very thing that is up for grabs. This is a fallacy, because if a certain point is in dispute, we cannot fairly assume it in our discussion.

Let’s continue for just a moment with our blatant example from above, in which the problem is obvious. We will then and work our way up to more difficult cases.

Premise: UCLA will have a winning season.

Conclusion: Therefore, UCLA will have a winning season.

If you were in doubt about the conclusion, you won’t accept the premise, and so you won’t be persuaded by this argument. After all, the reason given for accepting the conclusion is the very point at issue in your discussion.

Of course, no one is fooled by such an obviously bad argument. In real life, begging the question is often subtler. But before looking at examples, we should note a very important point that emerges from our discussion thus far.

Arguments that beg the question have premises that are relevant to their conclusions, they are deductively valid, and many of them are even sound. For example, the argument, “Two is an even number; therefore, two is an even number,” is sound. Does this mean that relevance, validity, and soundness don’t matter after all? No. It merely shows that in some contexts there are additional things that matter in an argument.

## Variations of Begging the Question

### Begging the Question by Rephrasing the Conclusion

Sometimes people rephrase the conclusion (put it in different words), and then use the result as a premise. This can be confusing if they use technical jargon or puts things in a long-winded way. Consider the following dialogue:

Llona: One of these days I think we’ll have a successful communist country.

Zoe: Communism will never succeed, because a system in which everything is owned in common will never work.

In standard form Zoe’s argument looks like this:

Premise: A system in which everything is owned in common won’t work.

Conclusion: Therefore, communism will never work.

The conclusion of this argument may well be true. But the very point at issue between Llona and Zoe is whether communism could work. And in this context, Zoe’s premise cannot be used to support her conclusion, since it simply restates the conclusion in different words. To see this, note that:

• communism = a system in which everything is owned in common, and
• will never succeed = will never work

This argument is no better than the argument that OU will win because they will win. But when the premise restates the conclusion in different words, the fallacy can be harder to detect.

Here is another example:

Ali: I don’t know about all the things in the Bible. Like the song says, it ain’t necessarily so.

Burt: That’s wrong. The Bible is the word of God.

Ali: How in the world do you know that?

Burt: Well, the Bible says that it’s the word of God, and it’s divinely inspired.

In standard form:

Premise 1: The Bible says that it’s the word of God.

Premise 2: The Bible is divinely inspired.

Conclusion: Hence, the Bible is the word of God.

Ali and Burt will agree that the first premise of the argument is true. But since the point at issue here is whether the Bible is the word of God, Burt’s second premise begs the question. To view Premise 2 as evidence for the existence of God, you already must believe in the existence of God.

Put another way, anyone (like Ali) who doubts that the Bible is the word of God will also doubt whether it is divinely inspired. Since being divinely inspired and being inspired by God are the same thing, the two claims here say virtually the same thing. This doesn’t mean that Burt’s conclusion is false. But if the goal is to convince Ali, then Burt needs independent support for his claim. He could either:

1. Employ some other premise Ali will accept, or
2. Defend premise 2 (using premises Ali will accept)

Here is another argument that suffers from the same malady: “Democracy is the best form of government, since the best system is one in which we have government by the people.” Before moving on, put this argument into standard form and analyze it.

### Begging the Question by Generalizing the Conclusion

A trickier form of begging the question arises if we generalize the conclusion and use the result as a premise. This problem is illustrated in the following dialogue:

Destiny: There’s nothing wrong with a couple of cold beers on a hot summer day.

Dominique: Oh no. Drinking beer is wrong!

Destiny: Why in the world is that?

Dominique: Well, because drinking alcohol is wrong.

In standard form Dominique’s argument looks like this:

Premise: Drinking alcohol is wrong.

Conclusion: Therefore, drinking beer is wrong.

Here Dominique’s premise does not simply restate her conclusion. But it does generalize it (since beer is one type of alcohol). Destiny surely knows that beer is one variety of alcohol, and since the point at issue is whether drinking beer is wrong, she won’t accept the more general claim that drinking alcohol is wrong.

### Begging the Question in More Subtle Ways

It is also possible to beg the question in more subtle ways. For example:

Deja: I know abortion is a terrible thing, but I don’t think it should be illegal.

Minh: But you’re overlooking the fundamental point. Abortion is murder. And we certainly should have laws against that. So, we should have laws against abortion.

In standard form Minh’s argument looks like this:

Premise 1: Abortion is murder.

Premise 2: We should have laws against murder.

Conclusion: So, we should have laws against abortion.

We can assume that Deja and Minh and virtually everyone else agrees that we should have laws against murder, so it is perfectly appropriate for Minh to assume this as their second premise. But the point at issue is really whether abortion is wrong in a way that would justify having a law against it. Deja denies that this, so she certainly wouldn’t accept Minh’s premise that abortion is murder. In this context, Minh’s first premise assumes the point at issue, and so begs the question.

Of course, Minh’s first premise might be true. But since Deja would not accept it at this stage of their discussion, Minh needs to give some further argument to support it. If they can do this, then Deja will almost certainly accept Minh’s further claim that we need laws against abortion.

Some people draw a distinction between the fallacy of begging the question and the fallacy of circular reasoning. We needn’t worry about such fine distinctions here, though, so we’ll use these two labels interchangeably to stand for the same fallacy.

## Question Begging Labels

Sometimes we characterize a view or group or person in a loaded way, with a label that begs the question against it (or them). This happens when the label only makes sense if the view or group or person is defective in some way. For example, labels like ‘redneck’ and ‘welfare queen’ suggest that members of a group are guilty of certain practices or have dangerous views.

It is also possible to use labels to beg the question in favor of a position, group, or person. For example, labels like ‘The moral majority’ suggests that the group’s views represent those of the majority, and that they are right. Perhaps they do, but you can’t use a label to settle the question.

Of course, no one would think that a label completely settles the matter, but labels do predispose us to think about issues in certain ways. At their worst, question begging labels so warp the way people conceptualize an issue they can’t even see that question begging is going on. Many people who hear the label ‘illegal immigrant’ take this to be a legitimate descriptor of people who enter the country without formally immigrating first. The label suggests that crossing into the country without first immigrating is an illegal action. The issue is that, while some people entering the country without first immigrating might be up to illegal ends, many others are seeking asylum, a process that requires that an individual has fled their country of origin due to fear of persecution. In other words, it is a legal process that requires the person first enter the country without permission.

Exercises

1. In each of the following, determine whether a question is begged. If it is, say as precisely as you can just how the fallacy is committed (Does the premise restate the conclusion? Does it just generalize it? Is something subtler going on?).
1. All freshmen should have to attend computer orientation, because all college students should go to such an orientation.
2. All college students should have to attend computer orientation, because without it they won’t be prepared to use computers, and they’ll have to master that skill to have a decent job.
3. Capital punishment is morally wrong, because the Bible says that it is.
4. The belief in God is nearly universal, because nearly everybody, in every culture and every historical period, has believed in God.
5. It is important that we require handguns to be registered, because it keeps guns out of the hands of children (they are too young to be registered) and dangerous criminals (since a background check is required for registration).
6. It’s important that we require handguns to be registered, since we need some sort of record who the owners of firearms.
7. Capital punishment is morally wrong, because it’s always wrong to take the life of another person.
8. God exists, because nearly everybody, in every culture and every historical period, has believed in God.
2. Give an example of a question-begging argument where one of the premises simply restates the conclusion.
3. Give an example of a question-begging argument where one of the premises simply generalizes the conclusion.
4. What sorts of premises is it legitimate to assume in a certain context? How can you determine whether a premise is legitimate or not?